91

Meet Chenelle Williams

Voices of 91
Voices of 91 podcast interview and transcription with alumna and data scientist, Chenelle Williams.

This data scientist uses her experiences of feeling like she didn’t belong to help others in the same situation. As a student ambassador and peer advisor, 91 alum, Chenelle Williams, knows the importance of having group and peer support to achieve a sense of belonging. Her bold confidence is a model for others.

Welcome to Voices of 91, celebrating the college’s 50th Anniversary. I'm Marianne McGhee. Community colleges boast so many features and terrific value adds. But the ability to transfer to a four-year school is one of the top reasons that students choose us. Chenelle Williams is an alum and up-and-coming data scientist. A young woman who makes a plan and chooses carefully. We are delighted to have her here!

91: Chenelle, your resume is already exceptionally impressive, and it includes a pretty exciting internship you had over the summer. Tell us a little about it.

Chenelle: Oh, for sure! This summer I interned at Amazon as a data business analyst. It's in the data science space and it was really exciting waking up and living in DC for a couple of months. Going into the office was so great. A couple of times I even got to travel to Seattle with my team.

It was exciting to be able to interact with other young professionals and people in my field and to envision what I would look like in ten years. So fulfilling, truly.

91: This is such an exciting time to talk to you Chenelle, because you're in this wonderful “verge” stage. You're on the verge of graduating and on the verge of starting this new career.

Before we get into your future, take us back to your decision to come to 91.
What landed you here? How did we get so lucky to have you as a student?

Chenelle: As someone interested in data, I can say that data has always been how I've done my life. I moved to Richmond, and I thought, “OK I want to go to UVA or maybe Virginia Tech and I know I want to do computer science so how can I figure that out?”

I did lots of research, so I said, “OK let me find a Community College near to me. It also needs to have good values. It has to have good transfer agreements and be a college I will feel comfortable at.” I called, I visited, and I went to the downtown campus first. The staff was so friendly, they laid it out for me.

They said, “We can do this — you can take these classes, and you can get into whatever college you please.”

I thought, “OK, this is what I want to do.”

That same day I started my application and I got everything ready, and truly it's been such a good experience. I’m glad that I went with 91. Not just academically. I've been able to progress socially as well. With my leadership qualities this school has been able to nurture me in multiple ways.

91: I want to talk a little bit about that because you were a student ambassador while you were here at 91. You’re also an engineering transfer student peer advisor at UVA. You seem to have this special empathy about what it feels like to be new, what kind of questions new students have, and what they need to hear. Where does that come from?

Thin black woman with long braids touches clear data screen in front of her illuminating fingerChenelle: A bit of a backstory — In Jamaica, I grew up in the countryside and I always wanted to go to this very popular school. All the smart kids went to this school. I would always tell my dad every day, “I want to go to this school.” Even at seven years old, which is hilarious, “I'm going to get into this school.”

So, I went there, and I was like, “Oh. I don't identify with anyone here at all.”
I was glad I was there and glad that I had access to these resources. But I felt so odd compared to my other classmates. Because of that experience, I tried not only to cultivate a safe space not for myself but for other people in similar situations. Whenever I go to a new space, I immediately think, “OK, how can I feel comfortable here? Once I figure that out I ask myself, “How can I make everyone else feel comfortable, too?”

That's something I've been carrying with me. When it comes to transferring, specifically. I did so much research and when I think back on how much time I invested, I don't think it makes sense for everyone else to have to invest that time, too. We don't have to reinvent the wheel. I’ve taken all the resources I’ve gathered and all the things I’ve learned, and I bring that to other students so they can also have a good experience.

91: Chenelle, I loved the piece I read where you are featured in the Washington Post and you say you were known as: “Chenelle, the young black woman in the engineering department.”

If that is your brand, if that is how you are known, I'm assuming they're not very many black women in the engineering department?

Chenelle: Oh no, not at all.

91: How have you been able to navigate, and not just hang in there, but really thrive, achieve, and succeed there? What's been the secret?

Chenelle: I don't even know if there's a secret. There's always imposter syndrome. Sometimes I'm in a class and realize there is no one else like me. There might be one other person, so I know I have to befriend them because we have to form our group.

I spoke to my mom about this because it was the last day of my internship and I was waiting to see if I could come back and work full-time at Amazon. My mom told me, “You got this. You're confident, you have the skills.”

I thought, “I know I have it, but at this moment, I have to put on extra confidence so even if I don't feel confident, at the moment, I have to find it somewhere." Even if I don't feel it 100% yet. Because feeling confident and portraying that, you will eventually get there.

Also, for me, it's good to know that even if I'm the only one in this room right now, if other people see me, they will also feel comfortable in the room. I have a mentee that I mentored last summer who transferred from a community college in Richmond. I was speaking to her the other day because we still keep in contact. She said to me, “Chenelle, seeing you put yourself out there constantly without fear of rejection is what motivates me to continue.”

When I heard that I thought, “This is exactly what I need to keep doing. Because if I can inspire just one person… .” I know it sounds corny and everyone says that. But, it's so fulfilling to know that you have impacted people. You've helped them achieve what they wish to because they're no longer afraid of the boundaries of being the only one in the room, and of the looks. Because the looks are just looks, at the end of the day.

91: I cannot think of more wisdom from someone who is still so young. You have achieved so much and a lot of that is just pure Chenelle.

Tell us a little bit about how you think 91 has prepared you for where you are now.

Chenelle: I think largely, the fact that I got to engage in so many different leadership opportunities and no one said, “No.”

When COVID hit and we were doing orientation and suddenly we switched from in-person to online, I was thinking, “I can help with the transition. I can figure it out. We can do recordings and whatnot.” No one said, “No.” Instead, they said, “OK let's see what we can figure out.” I think that's so important.

I even got to be a part of the student advisory committee for SCHEV (Student Council for Higher Education of Virginia). Someone just said, “Hey Chenelle, I think you'd be good for them.” And I said, “OK, yeah, I'll try it out.”

People kept presenting me with opportunities. I believe some students think, “OK, we're at community college. I'm just here to do my classes.” But it's more than that! Because you can learn so much about how to be a leader and your purpose here. That way, when you move to your career, or when you transfer to another college, you already have that strong sense of self. which is important.

If you go into a new space and you're not quite sure who you are, there are going to be months of confusion. You’re trying to figure all that out. If you go in and you already know what you're about and what you would like to do, you're already one step up. You will just continue to advance and progress.

91: I hope many students are taking notes on this. If they don't take notes on any other thing, take notes on this. Because this is brilliant advice.

Help me understand. What is data science? You're a computer science major and this is a subset of computer science, right? What is data science and what drew you to that?

Chenelle: Data science is, as the name suggests. It's all about data. It's about getting that data first. You're cleaning the data, you're putting it in what we call a “pipeline.”

For example, let's say everyday you use this app. We're getting data from that app and we're putting it into our database. Once we have that, we can analyze it. We can do statistical analysis to look at trends in the data. We can create different charts and visualizations to present that data to partners so they can make decisions based on that.

When I was at Amazon I worked in student programs. Much of the data I dealt with was student program data and interview data.

It's just about taking the data we get — either we get ourselves or we get from a third party — and making decisions using that data.

91: I tell you Chenelle, your chops for research have paid off in so many ways. We are so glad that your research led you to 91 Community College, led you to UVA, led you to Amazon, and beyond!

We are delighted at all you have accomplished, and we know you have so many more exciting things ahead of you! Thank you for making this pit stop on your way back to Charlottesville. Best of luck to you, and thank you, everybody, for joining us on this edition of, Voices of 91. We'll see you next time.